Do some parents engage in identify theft?

Do some parents engage in identify theft?

It’s something you’ll see from time to time on Facebook and other forms of social media. Little Sally suddenly has a Facebook profile and is friends with her mummy and daddy, her aunts and uncles, her grandparents and other close family friends.

Except, Little Sally isn’t 13 years old, the legal age at which point Facebook will allow a minor to create a profile. In fact, Little Sally was only born a month ago.

Unless Little Sally is an anachronistic evolutionary titan somehow and miraculously delivered to the world from the future, there’s a fairly good chance that instead of Little Sally having setup her own Facebook profile, her parents have done so on her behalf.

Is such an action identity theft?

Cartoon of people crowding around child at computer

There’s a few different variations on what identity theft means. According to the Oxford Dictionary1:

The fraudulent practice of using another person’s name and personal information in order to obtain credit, loans, etc.

Based on such a definition, we can’t say by simply setting up a Facebook page that Sally’s parents have literally engaged in identify theft (unless of course they’ve also tried to borrow money in her name, too). Other definitions look at the financial aspects as a primary consideration in identity theft, too. The Cambridge dictionary says it is2:

[LAW] the illegal use of another person’s personal details, for example in order to steal money from their bank account

Now in this case, while the example is financial, the definition is broader – “another person’s personal details”. Not specifically financial fraud. (The “etc.” in the Oxford definition might also suggest credit/financial motives are also merely examples of a broader spectrum of activities.) The USA Criminal Code3 provides several examples of what identity theft might be, including4:

(7) knowingly transfers, possesses, or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, or in connection with, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of Federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable State or local law

This is where identity theft becomes a broader consideration, beyond just financial. The implication suggests that using or assuming someone else’s identity without direct financial motivation could in certain circumstances be considered as identity theft – at least, from a legal standpoint.

In “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites”, Danah noted5:

The rapid adoption of social network sites by teenagers in the United States and in many other countries around the world raises some important questions. Why do teenagers flock to these sites? What are they expressing on them? How do these sites fit into their lives? What are they learning from their participation? Are these online activities like face-to-face friendships or are they different, or complementary? The goal of this chapter is to address these questions and explore their implications for youth identities. While particular systems may come and go, how youth engage through social network sites today provides long-lasting insights into identity formation, status negotiation, and peer-to-peer sociality.

We are moving into a new social age where aspects of identity evolve not just from face to face social interactions, but also from those we have online. As such, this also means that our digital identity is one which has increasing value to us, as individuals. Additionally, since we place increasing value on our own digital identity, or digital persona, so too do we place value on the digital identity of others, and they on ours. This can impact us on multiple fronts. Consider, for instance, that policing and security agencies review, and or/farm social media activity – and the more ‘open’ it is, the less likely they are to require a warrant to do so. From Government & Technology6:

Even if Facebook declines law enforcement’s request for information, police can still access online data through other means. For example, every time someone posts information publicly, either on their personal page or in public groups, that information can legally be used in criminal investigations. There is no subpoena required for accessing public data like this.

Beyond law, HR departments, prospective hiring managers and others will search for publicly available social media content published by individuals who are in the process of being hired (or considered) for a position. From Business News Daily7:

If you think that your Facebook and Twitter profiles won’t be looked at when you’re applying for a job, think again. The vast majority of employers are now searching through candidates’ social media accounts as part of the hiring process, new research finds.

Some organisations will take this further and even demand access to social media credentials as part of the hiring process, though of late this has been receiving increasing push-back – possibly as a result of the increased value of the digital identity to individuals.

Beyond law enforcement and corporate job screening processes, other industry verticals are also evaluating how and where they can make use of social media or social media data to deliver better services, gain a competitive advantage, or improve the customer experience. The insurance industry, for instance, is not just using chatbots8 to reduce salary costs, but also farming social media information about claimants, too. Per the Guardian9:

With the number of whiplash cases soaring, canny insurers are increasingly looking at people’s Facebook and Twitter accounts to help them nail false claimants.

Such interaction and such access to, or mining of social media information is likely to continue to increase for some time to come. (While science fiction writers have explored the dystopian nature of health insurance caused by a fully mapped human genome, the rapid rise of social media as a new way of defining our identity and our personal history is one which will likely attract increasing attention in both fact and fiction.)

Our behaviour, our posts and our interactions on social media – and indeed the Internet, more broadly – create a digital footprint which is also used by business such as Google, Facebook, Twitter (and indeed many other dedicated advertising providers) to determine what we see when we search, and what we are exposed to when we log onto social media. This is referred to as a “filter bubble”, and can have significant consequences in bias reinforcement or denial of neutral information. Eli Pariser spoke at TED regarding filter bubbles10 – the introductory synopsis highlights Eli’s concerns with such bubbles11:

As web companies strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, there’s a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a “filter bubble” and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview. Eli Pariser argues powerfully that this will ultimately prove to be bad for us and bad for democracy.

We return then to Little Sally, 1 month old and already with a rich collection of friends on Facebook, albeit under an account which has violated the terms of service of the organisation. She “likes” a variety of posts from her grandmother about cute cat videos, proving to Facebook’s personality algorithms that she wants to see more posts about cats. She “likes” a post from a local TV Facebook page advertising the next season of Arrow, potentially identifying her as a fan of Stephen Amell. But she also “likes” posts from Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump and Pat Robertson, letting Facebook’s algorithms know she’s a Republican, possibly a Tea-Party supporter, and maybe also a radical right-wing christian.

Yet we know, as a 1 month old baby, that Sally likes none of these things. She has an instinctive fondness for milk, her mother, and comfort, but beyond this there’s very little cognitive “liking” going on for Sally at the level she is supposedly engaging in on Facebook, instead, it might be said that Sally’s digital personality has been effectively hijacked by her parents.

Online impersonation, in fact, is something that websites and organisations who try to help parents create a safe environment for their children actually caution against. From Webroot, a Cybersecurity site12:

The use of someone else’s name to send email, post material, create social networking accounts, or contact other people in any way is called online impersonation or e-personation, and parents should be aware of how online impersonation can be used to harass adults (e.g. teacher, principal, coach) and children

Yet, in actual fact, children also run the risk of their parents impersonating them.

While parents who engage in such digital hijacking and persona impersonation may do it because “it’s cute”, it’s also likely they have not considered the potential legacy of their actions. At what point, for instance, does it cease being cute and start being ‘creepy’? What happens when Sally comes of (Facebook) age and wants her own profile? Will she be forced to take on a profile with 13 years of her supposed behavioural traits, or will she be forced to start a new account, LittleSally2, because her parents took that profile name from her through their actions shortly after her birth? What happens if she does take on the profile her parents crafted for her, and it skews her worldview differently to what she might have otherwise developed? Or what happens if her parents dislike the LGBTI community, yet Sally realises she’s lesbian, bisexual or trans when as she grows up – and sees legacy messages encouraging her to think ill of herself pumped into her feed by algorithms that have spent a decade or more learning what ‘she’ wants to see?

As our digital personality, and our actions online exert influence over what we see, what we do, what we feel and how we interact with others, the “cutesy” assumption of a child’s persona by a parent or parents on social media is potentially an inappropriate direction. In the same way that prospective parents are encouraged to attend classes to help them understand child birth and physical care of their baby after it has been delivered, we may be approaching the time where education of regarding the child’s digital health will become essential for prospective parents, too.


  1. Identity Theft at the Oxford Dictionary
  2. Identity theft at the Cambridge Dictionary
  3. Title 18, Part I, Chapter 47, Section 1028
  4. Cornell Law School
  5. Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites, Danah Boyd, December 2007, Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, Research Publication No. 2007-16
  6. Can the police use Facebook to investigate crimes?, Government & Technology, March 5, 2017
  7. Keep It Clean: Social Media Screenings Gain in Popularity, Chad Brooks, June 16 2017, Business News Daily
  8. Lemonade, the online insurance firm powered by ethics and chatbots, launches in California, Paul Sawers, May 10 2017, Venture Beat
  9. Insurance cheats discover social media is the real pain in the neck, Shane Hickey, 18 July 2016, The Guardian
  10. Beware online filter bubbles, Eli Pariser, March 2011, TED
  11. Ibid
  12. Discussing online impersonation with your kids, Webroot
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